I’ve spent years inside of high school buildings which are notorious for long hallways. Every hour or so, with the ring of a bell, hundreds or thousands of human beings move into these long hallways and move to their next class.
Some years ago, I noticed that I moved down the hallways like most everyone else did: looking down or looking above others. Once I noticed that about myself, I began watching the faces that passed me. I could see some of their feelings through the windows of their eyes: anxiety, fatigue, happiness, worry, boredom, curiosity, fear. So many human beings jammed into such small spaces, each moving as if they were alone. My guess is that most of us do actually move through crowds like that, feeling fairly alone. How do we learn to do that?
I started a little experiment–just for myself. I wondered one day what would happen if I smiled and greeted anyone who looked at me. So, that day, every time I went out to walk a hallway, I did. I don’t know what I thought would happen, but I was surprised. Frequently faces were startled at first. Startled because someone was smiling at them? After the immediate startle, most faces, the vast majority of faces, broke into a smile, too. That became such the common experience that what really stuck out were the few, the very few, who would look back at me and continue unmoved by my smile. The unappreciated smile returned with a frown, or an expression of anger or depression, left its mark on me – almost as if something had been thrown at me.
We can choose to affect the world around us in this simple way. A smile. A greeting. My experiment that day has continued for the last 12 years. It’s become my way of navigating long narrow hallways. In fact, when I run in my neighborhood, I wave – at everyone, even the delivery trucks. Here’s what I’ve learned: The smile changes me, first. And then, it has the potential to bring change to others.